Thursday, January 19, 2006

In a New Element

Ash and I started swimming recently. This is a huge step for me. I didn’t learn how to swim until I was 27 years old. People usually look at me as though I’ve just announced that I still use Betamax when I say that, but there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. There was no money for swimming lessons when I was growing up and we didn’t live anywhere near a body of water that people might swim in, so I had never had opportunity or particular reason to learn as a young child. Then, when I was fourteen, I was at the beach with a friend. We had waded out a little way, until the water came up to maybe halfway between our waist and our chests, and then were riding the small waves on little inflatable rafts. I lost my grip on the raft and when I splashed after it, I got caught in a small riptide. Then, suddenly, I was in much deeper water and I couldn’t stand any longer. I tried to “swim” in a line parallel to shore, but I knew I wouldn’t last long, and started to feel panicked. I called to my friend, but it took a while for him to understand that I was in trouble. Luckily, he didn’t try to save me himself, but yelled for help and soon a lifeguard was headed toward me. I have never been so frightened and I could feel how tired my legs and arms were, waiting for help, trying to keep my head above water, but it was getting harder and harder.

For several years afterward, I could not get into water any deeper than my knees, or maybe my waist. Not even in a swimming pool, where there is no such thing as a riptide. My heart would start to pound, my head would feel dizzy, and I would feel an utter panic that I knew made it dangerous for me to be in the water, both for myself and for the people around me. The fear gradually lessened. I forced myself to wade into a pool as far as I could before the fear started and stay there as long as possible while trying to think about how safe I was and how different a swimming pool is than a large body of water. A friend of mine in Germany was a great help in this regard. His family actually took me to the Baltic Sea and to the North Sea and he literally held my hand through my first subsequent experience with the open water. I still feel incredibly uneasy in any water where I can’t see the bottom or where there might be a sudden drop off. A few summers ago I was at Laga Di Garda in northern Italy and while my girlfriends swam in the warm, sunny water, I was left behind. Now, don’t feel too bad for me: I was in Italy, it was sunny, the sand was warm, there were hot Italian waiters at the nearby café, and yummy, frothy cappuccino. Not exactly torture. Still, it would have been nice to join them in the water.

Sometime during college, I finally came to the realization that I needed to learn to swim, not just for safety’s sake, but because it was the only way to conquer the fear totally. I finally got my chance when I went on vacation to Walt Disney World with Finbar. Over the course of the week, I learned the basics of freestyle. It was incredibly liberating. Not that I had any strength or endurance at all. But I felt a little less helpless.

So, now I’m learning how to be a better swimmer. I’m learning how to breathe properly, how to use my arms more efficiently. Today, Ash started teaching me to do the breaststroke and I’m enjoying myself in the water for the first time since I was fourteen. I want to feel capable and safe in the water. I’d like to be able to swim in a lake again. I’d like to not feel afraid to go kayaking with my friends. Right now, I’m still very slow and I have no real endurance to speak of. But I’m getting a little better all the time. Every time I get in the pool, I feel like I’m getting stronger, and I don’t mean physically. It’s very empowering to be taking steps toward conquering a terrible fear.

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At 6:48 AM , Blogger pacatrue said...

That's wonderful, Katze. I've taken swimming lessons on and off my entire life, but never been a good swimmer at all. I am trying to change that with my little 3 year old. We take him to the beach a lot and he can turn over now in the water so that only his fingers touch. The hope is that he won't ever be scared, like I was.

At 10:18 AM , Blogger katze said...

That's great! He'll be so glad for that later in life.

At 12:09 PM , Blogger European said...

Yeah for you!!!

At 2:05 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that no one has made a "breast stroke" joke yet.


At 6:31 PM , Blogger luneray said...

if you get scared, remember women float quite easily, since we are granted built in flotation devices.


At 3:28 PM , Blogger katze said...

Ah hahahahahahahah! You have seen me, my dear Luneray. I was NOT granted said flotation devices. Ergo, I don't float. I sink. Just ask Ash.

At 9:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

They float me just fine.



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